In which I express agreement with Jonah Goldberg

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by Jeff Fecke • So Barack Obama is president now, and while we’re all agreed that it’s wonderful and stuff, there is something that I think neither right nor left has completely grasped yet. It’s something expressed by Jonah Goldberg, of all people, as interviewed in McPaper:

“Admittedly, it’s a consolation prize, but there are real benefits to being out in the wilderness. It’s simply a lot more fun to be out of power,” said conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg, editor at large of National Review Online.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

I don’t know if “fun” is the right word, but yes, it’s easier to be a pundit and/or partisan when one is out of power. The reason is obvious: when your party is out of power, you’re free to challenge and complain about everything, from the sublime to the ridiculous. You’re not worried about whether your party’s goals are going to become law; indeed, you know they won’t without a sea change in the electorate. And so you can take your time and energy and put it into building for that change. And then the change comes.

And then — then you’ve got trouble. Because the truth is that governing under the American system is very difficult. It’s difficult on purpose. A President, even one with majorities in both houses of Congress, can only propose legislation; he cannot author it, and he has no power other than his ability to rally the people and to convince and cajole legislators, that is capable of enacting his vision. Similarly, a Congress, even if united and with a friendly president, has only limited power to overcome the objections of a president; yes, they can override a veto, but that requires significant support from a minority party, and it happens rarely.

No, the American system requires a president and congressional leaders to negotiate. And once that’s happened, then individual legislators get their say — and unlike the Westminster system, those legislators are free to vote their conscience over party. The system is messy, given to log-rolling and pork, and as pork products, the system creates laws in much the same way that sausage is created — and as Otto von Bismarck first remarked, if one loves laws or sausages, it’s better not to watch them being made.

This creates a problem for partisans of the majority. Do we wring our hands at the pork that will inevitably attach to the stimulus plan? Or do we suck it up, and accept it for the greater good? Do we note issues with appointees like Timothy Geithner, who is being nominated to head the Treasury Department, but appears unable to deal with TurboTax? Or do we keep quiet, hoping that Our Guy Knows What He’s Doing?

It’s easy if you’re a Republican — you attack. And frankly, you should attack. That’s your job. As we on the left were common of noting, it’s important to dissent when one is concerned with the direction of the country. Our nation is built on the idea of dissent as a patriotic act. The First Amendment codifies the idea that it is one’s birthright as an American to speak out against the president when one disagrees with him. One can dissent foolishly — hoping the president fails as a president is, generally speaking, hoping that America fails, and while it’s your right to do so, it’s not something I’d take pride in. But dissenting because you think a policy is ill-crafted, an appointee is bad, a decision by the president is poor? That’s your duty as an American.

And that, my friends, is the lesson for those of us on the left to embrace. Just because our president’s name is Obama and not Bush, just because the congressional leaders are named Pelosi and Reid, and not Boehner and McConnell — that’s no reason for us to follow them blindly, or check off on their every decision with our fingers crossed, hoping they’re making the right ones. Because neither party holds a monopoly on Truth, and neither party is made up of perfect people.

It will be more difficult, yes. And there will times when we want to hold our fire. We must not. It is our responsibility to remember that our government works for us, not the other way ’round — and while it’s easier to attack enemies than friends, our friends need to hear from us no less than our opponents.

Finally, it is important for us to remember this: all of this has happened before, and all of this has happened again. The Democratic Party will, eventually, lose its majority, and lose the presidency. The Republican Party will, eventually, regain the levers of power. It may not happen soon, it may not happen for a generation — but it will happen. It is important for Democrats not to forget this, and to embrace and accept the right and duty of Republicans to assert their ideals, even when out of office. Many of the problems our country have faced these last eight years came from a majority party that seemed to believe they would govern forever, that they had no need to listen to or care about the minority. That a simple, “We won, you lost, get over it” was all the engagement needed.

Today, that majority is the minority, and it is oh-so-tempting to pay them back. But the majority is the minority in no small part because they chose to ignore those who opposed them. If Democrats make that mistake, we will find ourselves in the minority again, sooner rather than later. The President appears to understand that well. We who are his partisans should not forget it, either — and we should thus engage the right as we have, through a battle of ideas and an honest discussion of what will make our country better. For right now, we need that, and badly.

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